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Four Decades of Research on School Bullying

An Introduction
Shelley Hymel
Susan M. Swearer

This article provides an introductory overview of findings


from the past 40 years of research on bullying among
school-aged children and youth. Research on definitional
and assessment issues in studying bullying and victimization is reviewed, and data on prevalence rates, stability,
and forms of bullying behavior are summarized, setting the
stage for the 5 articles that comprise this American Psychologist special issue on bullying and victimization. These
articles address bullying, victimization, psychological sequela and consequences, ethical, legal, and theoretical
issues facing educators, researchers, and practitioners,
and effective prevention and intervention efforts. The goal
of this special issue is to provide psychologists with a
comprehensive review that documents our current understanding of the complexity of bullying among school-aged
youth and directions for future research and intervention
efforts.
Keywords: bullying, victimization, school violence

chool bullying has been around for as long as


anyone can remember, featured in Western literature for over 150 years (e.g., Charles Dickenss
Oliver Twist [Dickens, 1839/1966]; Thomas Hughess Tom
Browns School Days [Hughes, 1857/1892]). Today, bullying permeates popular culture in the form of reality TV
and violent video games, and in our free-market, capitalist
society. In contrast, empirical research on bullying is a
relatively recent focus, the earliest studies emerging in the
1970s in Scandinavia (Olweus, 1978). In North America,
public concern about school bullying increased dramatically in the late 1990s, owing in large part to the tragic
deaths of our youth by suicide (Marr & Fields, 2001) or
murder, especially the 1997 murder of Rina Virk (Godfrey,
2005) and the Columbine massacre in 1998 (Cullen, 2009).
Since then, bullying has received unprecedented attention
in the media and in academia, both nationally and internationally (e.g., Jimerson, Swearer, & Espelage, 2010; Smith,
Pepler, & Rigby, 2004; Swearer, Espelage, Vaillancourt, &
Hymel, 2010), and remains a significant concern among
parents and educators. Inspired by the 2011 U.S. White
House Conference on Bullying, hosted by President and
First Lady Obama and the Department of Education, this
special issue was undertaken, inviting recognized scholars
to critically review current research and theory on school
bullying, in an effort to inform future research and practice.
Here, we describe some of what we have learned over the
MayJune 2015 American Psychologist
2015 American Psychological Association 0003-066X/15/$12.00
Vol. 70, No. 4, 293299
http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0038928

University of British Columbia


University of NebraskaLincoln and Born This Way
Foundation, Los Angeles, California

past 40 years, setting the stage for the five articles that
comprise this special issue.

What Is Bullying and How Do We


Assess It?
Following the pioneering work of Olweus (1978, 1999,
2001), bullying has been defined as a subcategory of interpersonal aggression characterized by intentionality, repetition, and an imbalance of power, with abuse of power being
a primary distinction between bullying and other forms of
aggression (e.g., Smith & Morita, 1999; Vaillancourt,
Hymel, & McDougall, 2003). Scholars generally endorse
these characteristics, as does the U.S. Centers For Disease
Control (Gladden, Vivolo-Kantor, Hamburger, & Lumpkin, 2014), the American Psychological Association (VandenBos, 2007), and the National Association of School
Psychologists (2012). However, assessments of bullying do
not always emphasize these components (see Hamburger,
Basile, & Vivolo, 2011, Compendium of Assessment
Tools), making distinctions between bullying and other
forms of aggression less clear (see Rodkin, Espelage, &
Hanish, 2015). Moreover, childrens descriptions of bullying rarely include these definitional criteria (Vaillancourt et
Editors note. This article is one of six in the School Bullying and
Victimization special issue of the American Psychologist (MayJune
2015). Susan M. Swearer and Shelley Hymel provided the scholarly lead
for the special issue.
Authors note. Shelley Hymel, Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology and Special Education, University of British Columbia;
Susan M. Swearer, Faculty of Education, Department of Educational
Psychology, University of NebraskaLincoln. Shelley Hymel and Susan
M. Swearer are Co-Directors of the Bullying Research Network (http://
brnet.unl.edu).
The authors wish to acknowledge the support received for this work,
including support to the first author from the Edith Lando Charitable
Foundation, the University of British Columbia Faculty of Education
Infrastructure Grant, and the Canadian Prevention Science Cluster, funded
through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada,
and support to the second author from the Andrew Gomez Dream Foundation, the Woods Charitable Fund, and the College of Education and
Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Shelley
Hymel, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia, 2125 Main
Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4 or Susan M. Swearer, 40 Teachers College
Hall, Department of Educational Psychology, University of NebraskaLincoln, Lincoln, NE 68588-0345. E-mail: shelley.hymel@ubc.ca or sswearer@
unl.edu

293

Shelley Hymel

al., 2008), leading many researchers to provide definitions


of bullying in their assessments.
Much debate exists regarding the best method and
informant for assessing bullying and victimization (e.g.,
Cornell & Cole, 2012; Swearer, Siebecker, Johnsen-Frerichs, & Wang, 2010), with measurement issues heralded
as the Achilles heel of bullying research (Cornell, Sheras,
& Cole, 2006). Although some suggest use of multiple
informants to establish psychometric adequacy (e.g., Juvonen, Nishina, & Graham, 2001), the reality of assessing
a complex, underground behavior involving multiple participants and influenced by multiple factors is that there
may be no single gold standard for accuracy. Bullying
has been assessed via parent, teacher, and peer reports, as
well as direct observations, but most rely on self-report
assessments, despite concerns about biases related to social
desirability, self-presentation, and/or fear of retaliation
(Pellegrini, 2001). Self-reports are economical and efficient, and give youth a much-deserved voice in the assessment process, tapping perceptions of both victims and
perpetrators. Although more time consuming, peer assessments are viewed as an alternative to self-reports (e.g.,
Cornell & Cole, 2012), especially given observational evidence (Pepler, Craig, & OConnell, 2010) that peers are
present in at least 85% of bullying incidents. Based on
information from multiple informants, peer assessments
can provide unique information about bullying. For example, Chan (2006) identified two major patterns of bullying
using peer reports. Serial bullies, named as perpetrators
by multiple victims, accounted for nearly 70% of victim
reports. Most of the remaining reports reflected multiple
victimization, with several perpetrators bullying the same
individual. Self- and peer-reports, however, demonstrate
only modest correspondence (r range .2 to .4; Branson &
294

Cornell, 2009; Crick & Bigbee, 1998; Graham & Juvonen,


1998; sterman et al., 1994; Pellegrini, 2001). Teacher and
parent reports are more suspect, given that bullying occurs
primarily in the peer group, especially in places with little
adult supervision (e.g., Vaillancourt, Brittain, et al., 2010).
Parents often have limited knowledge of what happens at
school, and teachers may not actually witness bullying
(Cornell & Brockenbrough, 2004) or may choose to ignore
it (Craig, Pepler, & Atlas, 2000).
Rather than debating the superiority of one approach
over another, we echo Juvonen et al. (2001) that these be
considered complementary sources of information, each
contributing to our understanding of bullying. Moreover,
selection of an assessment approach depends on the nature
of the research questions. If the accurate identification of
victimized children is the focus, Phillips and Cornell
(2012) have demonstrated the utility of using a combination of peer assessments, confirmed subsequently through
interviews by school counselors, underscoring the value of
investing greater efforts to assure accuracy in identification. A primary focus has been on evaluating school-based
interventions (see Bradshaw, 2015), for which peer reports
may be less sensitive to change over time than self-reports,
as they are often based on reputations that may not shift
despite behavior changes (Hymel, Wagner, & Butler, 1990;
Juvonen et al., 2001). At the same time, Frey, Hirschstein,
Edstrom, and Snell (2009) found self-reports to be less
sensitive to change than more costly and time-consuming
observations. Still, across informants, it is clear that far too
many of our youth are victims of bullying at school, a place
they are required by law to attend.

How Prevalent Is Bullying


and Victimization?
Documented prevalence rates for bullying vary greatly
across studies, with 10% to 33% of students reporting
victimization by peers, and 5% to 13% admitting to bullying others (e.g., Cassidy, 2009; Dulmus, Sowers, & Theriot, 2006; Kessel Schneider, ODonnell, Stueve, &
Coulter, 2012; Nansel et al., 2001; Perkins, Craig, & Perkins, 2011; Peskin, Tortolero, & Markham, 2006). Such
variations reflect differences in assessment approaches, as
well as differences across individuals (sex, age), contexts,
and cultures. Typically, boys report more bullying than
girls, but girls report more victimization (e.g., Cook, Williams, Guerra, Kim, & Sadek, 2010; Olweus, 1993). Developmentally, peer bullying is evident as early as preschool, although it peaks during the middle school years
and declines somewhat by the end of high school (e.g.,
Currie et al., 2012; Espelage & Swearer, 2003; Vaillancourt, Trinh, et al., 2010). A recent Institute of Educational
Studies report, based on a national sample of over 4,000
youth aged 12 to 18 years (DeVoe & Bauer, 2011), showed
declines in victimization from 37% to 22% from Grade 6 to
12. Prevalence rates also vary across countries. In a recent
report by the World Health Organization (WHO; Currie et
al., 2012), examining bullying and victimization among
10-, 13-, and 15-year-olds in 43 countries, rates of victimMayJune 2015 American Psychologist

Susan M.
Swearer

ization varied from 2% to 32% across countries and rates of


bullying varied from 1% to 36%.
Is bullying on the rise? Findings from the WHO
survey (Currie et al., 2012) indicated an overall decline in
peer victimization in most countries over previous years,
although the decline was small, usually less than 10% (see
also Rigby & Smith, 2011). In the United States, youth
reports of physical bullying declined from 22% in 2003 to
15% in 2008 (Finkelhor, Turner, Ormrod, & Hamby,
2010), but online harassment increased from 6% in 2000 to
11% in 2010 (Jones, Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2013). Thus,
although traditional forms of bullying may be declining,
cyberbullying appears to be on the rise as access to technology becomes more ubiquitous.

How Stable Is Peer Victimization?


Peer victimization is often characterized as a rather stable
experience (e.g., Once a victim, always a victim), but
stability estimates vary as a function of time, age, and
methodology. Teacher and peer reports show higher stability (e.g., r range .5 to .7; Fox & Boulton, 2006; Hanish
et al., 2004) than self-reports (e.g., r range .2 to .4;
Dhami, Hoglund, Leadbeater, & Boone, 2005; Fox & Boulton, 2006; Kochenderfer & Ladd, 1996). Generally, victimization is somewhat transient among younger children
(e.g., Buhs, Ladd, & Herald, 2006; Ladd & KochenderferLadd, 2002), but becomes moderately stable for middle
elementary students, over both short intervals (4 to 5
months, Goodman, Stormshak, & Dishion, 2001; Ostrov,
2008) and across 1 or 2 years (Bellmore & Cillessen, 2006;
Ladd & Kochenderfer-Ladd, 2002; Salmivalli, Lappalainen, & Lagerspetz, 1998; Yeung & Leadbeater, 2010),
with 40% to 50% of students reporting consistent victimization (Beran, 2008; Smith, Talamelli, Cowie, Naylor, &
MayJune 2015 American Psychologist

Chauhan, 2004). As time intervals increase, stability estimates decline, lending some hope for victimized students.
Between Grades 2/3 and 7/8, 15% to 20% of students
continue to be bullied (Kumpulainen, Rsnen, & Henttonen, 1999; Schafer, Korn, Brodbeck, Wolke, & Schultz,
2005), and Scholte, Engels, Overbeek, de Kemp, and Haselager (2007) found that 43% of 10- to 13-year-olds continued to be seen by peers as victims 3 years later. Across the
longest interval examined to date, Sourander, Helstel,
Helenius, and Piha (2000) found that 12% of boys and 6%
of girls were consistently bullied from age 8 to 16. For
these youth, there seems little optimism for change. Research over the past few decades has documented links
between victimization and a host of negative mental health,
social, and academic outcomes (see Card, Isaacs, &
Hodges, 2007; Hawker & Boulton, 2000; Swearer, Espelage, et al., 2010; Swearer & Hymel, 2015, for reviews),
with increasing evidence that victimization can get under
the skin, impacting neurobiological functioning (see Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2013). As part of this
special issue, McDougall and Vaillancourt (2015) move
beyond one-time, snapshot correlates to provide a critical
analysis of research on the longitudinal impact of peer
victimization over the years of childhood and adolescence,
with a focus on how peer victimization during the school
years plays out for adjustment in adulthood.

The Many Faces of Bullying


Bullying takes many forms, from direct physical harm
(physical bullying); to verbal taunts and threats (verbal
bullying); to exclusion, humiliation, and rumor-spreading
(relational or social bullying); to electronic harassment
using texts, e-mails, or online mediums (cyberbullying1).
Although physical and cyberbullying are often of greatest
concern, social and verbal bullying are the more common
forms experienced by students. For example, Vaillancourt,
Trinh, et al. (2010) found that 31% of Grade 4 through 12
students reported being physically bullied by peers and
12% reported being cyberbullied, whereas 51% and 37%
reported being verbally and socially bullied, respectively.
Students are often aware of rules prohibiting physical harm
to others, but verbal and social bullying are more difficult
to identify.
Adults rely on youth to report bullying, especially in
its more covert forms, and classrooms in which students are
more willing to report bullying are characterized by less,
not more, victimization (Cortes & Kochenderfer-Ladd,
2014). Yet youth are reluctant to report bullying, given
legitimate fears of negative repercussions or ineffective
adult responses (see Oliver & Candappa, 2007). Positive
relationships between teachers and students may enhance
the likelihood of student reporting (e.g., Oliver & Candappa, 2007), but this relationship is not always observed
(Cortes & Kochenderfer-Ladd, 2014), and with age, students willingness to report bullying declines steadily
1
See www.stopbullying.gov/what-is-bullying/definition/index.html
for a more detailed description

295

(Aceves, Hinshaw, Mendoza-Denton, & Page-Gould,


2010; Kochenderfer-Ladd & Pelletier, 2008: Trach, Hymel,
Waterhouse, & Neale, 2010). Cortes and KochenderferLadd (2014) found that students were more likely to report
bullying when they believed that teachers would respond
actively by involving parents and/or separating the students
involved, and less likely to report when they expected
teachers to punish the perpetrator, presumably for fear of
retaliation or ridicule.
Both boys and girls engage in all forms of bullying,
but sex differences are also evident, the most consistent
being boys greater involvement in physical bullying (e.g.,
Bjorkqvist, Lagerspetz, & Kaukiainen, 1992; Cook et al.,
2010). Some studies show higher rates of relational, verbal,
and cyberbullying among girls (e.g., DeVoe & Bauer,
2011; Vaillancourt, Trinh, et al., 2010), but sex differences
do not emerge in all studies (e.g., Kokkinos & Panayiotou,
2004; Marsh et al., 2011; Prinstein, Boergers, & Vernberg,
2001; Slonje & Smith, 2008; Storch, Brassard, & MasiaWarner, 2003). Future research is needed to understand the
impact of these different forms of bullying, although a
growing body of research suggests that cyberbullying is
more distinct from traditional or face-to-face forms than
originally thought (see Bauman, Cross, & Walker, 2013;
Kowalski, Limber, & Agaston, 2012; Runions, Shapka, &
Wright, 2013).

Different Types of Bullies


Over the past 40 years, stereotypes of bullies as socially
incompetent youth who rely on physical coercion to resolve
conflicts have diminished as studies document wide individual differences among children who bully. In his early
research, Olweus (1978, 1993) distinguished between children who bully others and those who both bully others and
are victimized. These bully victims have been characterized as hyperactive, impulsive, and as experiencing more
peer rejection, more academic difficulties, and more stressful and harsh home environments (see Schwartz, Proctor, &
Chien, 2001), but represent only a small portion (1% to
12%) of students (Dulmus et al., 2006; Nansel et al., 2001;
Solberg & Olweus, 2003; Spriggs, Iannotti, Nansel, &
Haynie, 2007). Over the past four decades, research has
also shown that many bullies are socially intelligent
(Bjrkqvist, sterman, & Kaukiainen, 2000; Sutton, Smith,
& Swettenham, 1999a, 1999b) and enjoy considerable status in the peer group (Vaillancourt et al., 2003), leading to
distinctions between socially marginalized and socially integrated bullies (Farmer et al., 2010). Adults may be less
able to recognize bullying perpetrated by students who
appear to be socially competent, well-functioning individuals. Moreover, if bullying is viewed as a reflection of
power and status in the peer group, it is difficult to convince students to abandon such behavior. In their review of
our current understanding of bullying, Rodkin et al. (2015)
critically evaluate evidence for various subtypes of bullies
and explore the mechanisms and motivations underlying
them.
296

Can We Effectively Address Bullying?


Given a growing body of evidence on the concurrent and
long-term consequences of bullying for both bullies (see
Rodkin et al., 2015) and victims (see McDougall & Vaillancourt, 2015), considerable emphasis has been placed on
finding the most effective ways to address bullying, clinically, legally, and educationally. This research is the focus
of the three articles in this special issue. As research in
psychology and neuroscience emphasize the interaction of
individual vulnerabilities, context effects, and experiences
with bullying and victimization, Swearer and Hymel
(2015) explore the utility of a social-ecological, diathesisstress model for understanding bullying as a systemic problem, with efforts to address bullying by impacting the
contexts in which such behaviors occur. Cornell and Limber (2015) review current efforts to address bullying in the
United States through legal and policy decisions and their
implications. Finally, Bradshaw (2015) provides a critical
analysis of research on how schools can best address the
problem of bullying, reviewing evidence for the effectiveness of school-wide, universal antibullying programs.
Research over the past four decades on school bullying has contributed greatly to our understanding of the
complexity of the problem as well as the challenges we
face in addressing it. Although questions still outnumber
answers, our hope is that this special issue serves as an
impetus for further research on bullying as well as greater
efforts to address the problem. In the words of one victimized youth,
In conclusion, there is no conclusion to what children who are
bullied live with. They take it home with them at night. It lives
inside them and eats away at them. It never ends. So neither
should our struggle to end it. (Sarah, age 16)
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